My dictionary defines “nationalist” as a person who advocates political independence for a country or has strong patriotic feelings and believes his country is superior to other countries. That strikes me as a commendable attitude. Nevertheless, “nationalist” is used repeatedly as a pejorative — often prefaced by white — in recent news media reports about some Americans who are outspoken in support of border security, a strong military, constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and the right to keep and bear arms, vigorous enforcement of existing laws, especially immigration laws, and President Donald Trump. Whenever the words white nationalist are read or heard, we’re expected to shake our head and cluck our tongue, signifying disapproval if not contempt.
This baffling misuse of language is apparent in the Aug. 22 CDT article about a man named Richard Spencer, president of an organization called the National Policy Institute. Spencer, who is characterized in the article by its author as a “white nationalist,” has been denied permission to speak on the PSU campus. According to PSU President Eric Barron, who is quoted in the article, Spencer’s views are “abhorrent and contradictory to our university’s values …,” his presence on campus would pose “a major security risk to students, faculty, staff, and visitors …” because of the “likelihood of disruption and violence … .”
Barron provides no details as to what Spencer has said or written or done to justify attributing to him “hatred, bigotry, or racism …” and to assume that any remarks he might make during a speech at PSU would be “odious.” He does not identify PSU, state and federal law enforcement personnel whom he consulted about the proposed speaking engagement by Spencer. He does not explain who he believes is likely to disrupt and react violently to a campus appearance by Spencer. He does not explain why he believes that PSU police could not maintain order at a Spencer speech. Doesn’t he understand that PSU police could and should without exception escort anybody exhibiting uncivil or unlawful behavior at such an event out of the venue and charge them with disorderly conduct (usually a summary offense) or disturbing the peace (a misdemeanor)? PSU students who exhibit uncivil or unlawful behavior could be put on academic probation or expelled. PSU faculty and staff who exhibit uncivil or unlawful behavior could be fired. Finally, President Barron does not elaborate on the “we” who decided that Spencer “is not welcome on our campus.” He spoke the words but who made the decision?
According to Barron, “Penn State continues to foster an inclusive climate for all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, genders and other differences …” and “strives to create an environment where everyone can teach, learn and live in an atmosphere of safety and mutual respect.” Those claims are contradicted by PSU’s response to Richard Spencer’s request to speak at the university. The other differences President Barron had in mind when he spoke those words apparently do not include partisan political differences. Mutual respect is absent when Spencer’s request is denied under the absurd pretense that a campus appearance by him might lead to violence even though the university has the responsibility and the capability to prevent it.
Phil Edmunds lives in Boalsburg.